Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #031 with Caitlin Magnall-Kearns.
Caitlin is a prolific and hugely talented Norn Irish Writer & Director currently making a name for herself in the theatre world. When the Covid-19 pandemic led to a rise in digital theatre, Caitlin discovered a love for writing for the screen. A champion of her own work and advocate for bigger bodies on the stage and screen, Caitlin has a passion and enthusiasm that is inspiring to witness. Her hard work and sacrifices are definitely paying off.
When did you start writing?
I began writing for fun when I was 17 or so. I had always liked English at school but it was when I applied for a playwriting scheme in my late teens that I started to realise that writing might be something I’d like to do and that I was good at it.
I had been writing on and off until I was 22, which is when I realised it’s what I wanted to focus on and pursue, and it seems to be going alright so far!
What is it about writing and directing for theatre that appeals to you?
The immediacy of it. The fact that you can write something, then days, hours, minutes later it’s brought alive by actors. I also think you can take more risks in theatre, there’s more time to play than screen, which I love.
Also to be quite honest it’s accessible, there’s not as many barriers as there are when making stuff for screen.
What advice do you have for anyone interested in writing for the stage?
Watch and read as much as you can, be it theatre, film, recorded performances. One thing which has been good about the past year and a bit is that the snobbery about recorded theatre has dissipated slightly, so now tonnes of theatres are releasing cheap streaming tickets for shows.
Attend workshops, email people. If you put the hours in, and you’ve got the talent, it will pay off.
New writers are often told that they need to find their voice. What does this mean to you and how can writers find theirs?
Some people are just born with a brilliant, distinctive writing voice, I don’t think I was one of those people. I was, however, a huge nerd for theatre, telly and films. My voice is an amalgamation of all of the writers I look up to and love, flavoured with my own opinions and experiences. I don’t think there’s any shame in resembling your influences.
How much of an impact has the Covid pandemic had on your work and what does it mean for the future?
I am one of the rare lucky people who was impacted positively career wise by covid. Before the pandemic I was working casual jobs and feeling pretty burnt out and disenfranchised. Being forced to stop actually made me rediscover my love of writing, and gave me time to improve my craft. My career has accelerated in the past 18 months. I have also realised I’d love to write for the screen, which is my next ambition.
Last year, you wrote ten digital monologues to be performed by actors across the UK and Ireland. A project that was supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. How did the project start and what was the process like writing these pieces through such unsettling times?
The project started when I reached out to a friend of mine Thomas Finnegan, who is a brilliant actor. This was in March/April 2020. I had written a monologue and I asked him if he fancied recording it and sticking it up online. Nine Monologues and ten thousand plus months later we had a digital archive of ten brand new pieces. It was a pleasure to make them, as I got to connect and work with actors from around the UK and Ireland, some mates, some strangers. I tailored the speeches to each actor, and a lot of them were created from conversations we had.
DOODY, the darkly comic one-man show about amateur dramatics and immature men ran at the Brighton Fringe this year. What was the process like writing the piece and what lessons did you learn from the experience?
DOODY came together through a number of different things. One, I saw a callout from the theatre company Five Pigeons Pecking a Bing Bag about an upcoming scratch night with the theme “nostalgia”.
Secondly I had recently started a working relationship with my mate Aaron Hickland, a brilliant actor, writer and creative. We met doing theatre in education a few years prior and reconnected during lockdown.
The idea for the piece came from watching the Disney+ show Encore, which was one of my early lockdown obsessions, where people in their 30’s, 40’s and beyond return to high school to redo their school musicals. I loved how as soon as they got back in their school and around their old mates how old rivalries and insecurities resurfaced. I then thought about what if this was taken to the umpteenth degree, and from there, DOODY was born.
We did a 5 minute version for Pigeons, a 15 minute version for an event with NSDF X Spotlight and finally a 25 minute version we did digitally for Brighton Fringe. We put in our own money and filmed it in my living room in Spring this year. While we were there we received a handful of four star reviews and an OffFest Award.
I think it just reinforced that you need to put yourself and your work out there, take risks and to be honest, to work really hard. I graft so much, and put my heart and soul into my career, but those sacrifices usually pay off.
Your work has earned you a spot as a New Playwright with the Lyric Belfast What does this opportunity mean to you?
The New Playwright thing is still mind blowing to me. The Lyric is our only full time producing house in Northern Ireland, and this course was a springboard for so many writers who I admire and look up to. I applied thinking I might get long or shortlisted if I was lucky, this was my first year applying and they had over 300 applicants.
I got the email to say I got on in March and I could not believe it. I am currently working to present my play Wee Buns with them this October, and I can’t wait for it to have an audience.
You’re having a busy year with lots going on and I’m sure there are further projects being developed behind the scenes too! What is your creative process when you have a new idea and how do you manage to keep so many plates spinning?
Honestly there is no method in my madness.
I think I am lucky that I love what I do, and also that I have the kind of brain that can jump between 3-4 projects. I do sometimes find it hard to switch off, but I force myself to take at least one day a week to chill out, play Sims and watch reality TV.
Is writers block ever an issue for you and if so, how do you deal with it?
It happens occasionally, but I don’t do anything exciting or glamorous. I usually have some biscuits and a coffee, watch some Four in a Bed and rest. I think the main thing is to not force it, don’t be afraid to rest. I’m lucky in that I get it in short bouts.
What’s your number one tip for writing dialogue?
Speak it out loud, or even better, get some mates to read it for you. Does it sound stilted or odd, do any words jump out as sounding unnatural?
I think a pitfall a lot of people fall into with dialogue is trying to show off with their use of language. Focus on establishing the characters, their relationships and the story you want to tell.
The response has been good! I think when we talk about inclusion we rarely talk about body size, and so people generally find it enlightening when it’s pointed out to them, especially if it’s something they’ve never had to deal with directly. Even now I rarely if ever see fat bodies on screen or stage, unless the show is explicitly about their weight e.g Shrill. I want to continue to advocate for bigger bodies in my work, whether directly or indirectly.
What has been your biggest achievement so far?
I would say making DOODY. I wrote, directed, filmed, edited and did the publicity myself, using a mixture of YouTube tutorials and good luck. It was a labour of love and it really paid off. Now I can’t wait for the next project…
How important is it for writers to champion their own work?
I feel it’s incredibly important. It goes against every bone in your body to do it, but honestly it pays off. I am really active on twitter, and can’t tell you the amount of friends and industry contacts I’ve made. If you’ve worked hard making something you’re proud of I think you deserve to show off and reap the rewards of that.
What are your current goals?
Two major ones in the next few years, first run of a full length play of mine in a theatre, and the other is to continue to build on my experience in working for screen.
I imagine your experience with digital theatre would be an excellent transition point into writing for the screen.
For me, TV is the goal. I think theatre is great as you can write something and make it, there’s an immediacy to it, TV is a much longer process.
Digital Theatre is definitely odd, and I do think it errs more towards being cinematic than theatrical, so I think it taught me a lot about what works on screen. I would love to write an original comedy-drama, or to be part of a writers room on another show. That is the dream.
Now that you’ve identified writing for the screen as a goal, how do you plan to achieve it?
I’m currently editing a short-form digital comedy series which I’m hoping to make next year. I also will hopefully have some work lined up on a TV show later this year in pre-production, though I’m waiting for confirmation for this. I also just make sure to keep an eye out for competitions and development opportunities.
I know for me it’s early days so not putting any major pressure on myself, just taking things as they come.
I remember you once commented on one of my posts about Bart on the Road episode of The Simpsons. If you had the opportunity to write an episode of the show, what would your story be?
I would love to do a Marge episode, I think she’s my favourite character from the family. She just makes me laugh so much. And Skinner is my favourite non-family character, so if there was any way of making a Marge and Skinner storyline, that would be great! Maybe with some Moe, Patty, Selma and Martin Prince sprinkled in…I’ll work out the finer details at a later date.
If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give to yourself at the start of your career?
Don’t be afraid to say what you want. Be brave.
Are there any books or scripts that you would recommend to other writers? (can also be podcasts, youtube videos, blogs etc)
Charlie Kaufman’s Bafta Screenwriters Lecture is fantastic.
I don’t tend to read books about writing, but maybe I’d be more successful if I did…
What’s the worst part of being a writer?
Very cliche but rejection is shit. It will make you doubt yourself constantly. But you have to have that inner strength and knowledge that you are worthy and talented. If you don’t have that you are going to be your own worst enemy.
What makes you laugh more than anything?
Harry Batt singing Private Investigations on Dick and Dom in Da Bungalow. That show and The Simpsons are where 99% of my sense of humour comes from.
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